Imagining Islands: Artists and Escape - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Imagining Islands: Artists and Escape

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Imagining Islands: Artists and Escape

20 June - 21 July 2013

An MA Curating Exhibition

Tacita Dean, Bubble House, 1999, 16mm film projection. Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York


Tacita Dean, Bubble House, 1999, 16mm film projection. Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York

Tacita Dean, Bubble House, 1999, 16mm film projection. Courtesy the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York

Imagining Islands: Artists and Escape responded to The Courtauld Gallery’s Summer Showcase, Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the ‘20s, and draws on works from The Courtauld Gallery and the Arts Council Collection.

In 1891, the artist Paul Gauguin travelled from Paris to the Pacific island of Tahiti in pursuit of a haven away from Western civilisation. Artists have long been drawn to the elusive ideals and tantalising fantasies that islands embody.

This trans-historical exhibition explores artists’ fascination with other worlds, real and imagined, and the perennial search for utopia, considering the concept of the island in poetic, evocative, and experimental ways.

Imagining Islands was curated by students on the MA course Curating the Art Museum.

Mary McIntyre The Lough VMary McIntyre
The Lough V
80 x 100cm
Light-jet prohotgraphic print on di-bond
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
© The artist


Parting of Ulysses

John Everett Millais
The Parting of Ulysses
c. 1862
11.8 x 10.3 cm
Watercolour on paper

The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London





BreughelJan Brueghel the Elder
Adam and Eve in Paradise
47.3 x 63.8 cm
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


Charles Avery, View Towards the Sea of Clarity

Charles Avery
View Towards the Sea of Clarity
64 x 94 cm
Ink and watercolour on paper
© The artist



Barbara Hepworth Icon  1957 45.7 x 35.6 x 30.5cm Mahogany Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Bowness, Hepworth Estate

Barbara Hepworth
45.7 x 35.6 x 30.5cm
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
© Bowness, Hepworth Estate

The 2013 MA Curating exhibition was been co-curated by the following 12 MA students:

Meryl Feinstein
Joseph Funnell
Stella Gray
Helen Hillyard
Charlotte Hopson
Amanda Mead
Sarah Moseley
Michael Nock
Sophie Partarrieu
Bojana Popovic
Amelia Smith
Sophia Susanto

We are grateful to the following lenders:
Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
Frith Street Gallery
UBS Art Collection
Charles Avery Studio

The exhibition has been generously sponsored by:
Salomon Cuellar logo
Alexandra Ashcroft

Thanks to Fired Earth logo for paint donation
Colours used: Bamiyan Blue and Graphite from ‘Elements of Colour’

Hi everyone, my name is Sophie Partarrieu. I’m one of the MA Curating the Art Museum students. I’ve put together some podcasts for you about the exhibition process and the installation. I hope you enjoy listening to the student voices!


Charles Avery’s project began from a desire to find a space in which to express his ideas. Avery wanted to carry out his investigations into philosophy, literature and art within a focused yet large framework and found that the ‘space’ he desired rapidly took the shape of an island.

“I first came to the Island at the end of the great kelp rush, although I was not aware of that at the time. On the contrary, I had sought out this strange land with a view to being its discoverer.”
– Charles Avery, The Islanders: An Introduction, 2005.

Avery wanted to carry out his investigations into philosophy, literature and art within a focused yet large framework.. The shape of the island may have been coincidental but it was also fortuitous; islands are physically contained, yet they also offer artists the opportunity to imagine infinite worlds within them.


The Island

Charles Avery has decided to call his imaginary world The Island, which is in fact more of an archipelago. Most geographical features on it resemble those of our world, except for a few major differences: there are mice made of stone, bottomless mountains and eternal forests.


Part of the same landmass as the Island, it is attached by the ‘great wetland.’ a giant marsh that Triangland’s inhabitants cannot traverse. For this reason they travel to ‘The Island’ as tourists and explorers by sea.

The Plane of Gods

The main tourist attraction of the Port of Onomatopoeia, The Island’s profane Olympus where tourists may gape and gawk at these anti-gods. It includes an aged bather, a giant number two, a beast named Aleph Nul (rumored to be a descendant of the Noumenon), a bottomless hole, and a tiny creature known as Mr. Impossible.


The Hunter:
A protagonist of sorts. He acquires the name “Only McFew” through a misunderstanding upon arrival and explores the island side by side with Miss Miss.

Miss Miss:
A beautiful young woman who guides and sponsors The Hunter on the Island. He falls madly in love with her upon arrival, but she refuses to give into his advances.

The Noumenon:
An elusive beast that resides in the Eternal Forest, over whose existence the Islanders continuously argue. Their ongoing debate has divided the population into various philosophical factions, from the solipsists to the rationalists.

The Philosophers:
These inhabitants argue over the existence of the Noumenon and various aspects of The Island. They wear hats that illustrate aspects of their philosophy.

“The esoteric Diskworlders who comprehend the world as area and whose approach is most closely related to the creationists in our reality, wear a flat round headdress while the hat worn by the solipsists has a prickly construction that aggressively protrudes into its surroundings. The metas, by contrast, do without any form of symbolism and appropriate the city for themselves by making their hat out of Onomatopoeia’s emblem.”1.

The Colonists:
These characters are inspired by the archetype of the 19th-century explorer. They keep the inhabitants of The Island enslaved on a recipe of eggs pickled in Henderson’s gin, while organising expeditions to the Eternal Forest in search of the Noumenon.

The Alephs:
Bizarre mythical creatures with long and shrivelled snouts that roam The Island.

Charles Avery, World Map, 2008. Gouache, pencil, ink and gold colour on paper, 255 x 330 cm. Courtesy the artist

Charles Avery, World Map, 2008. Gouache, pencil, ink and gold colour on paper, 255 x 330 cm. Courtesy the artist

The island Avery is continuously imagining and depicting is a believable, fixed and detailed geographical setting with familiar features such as seas, mountains, plains, forests, markets, a capital city, a port, and large corporations. Avery is set on making his imagined archipelago a coherent space, as he suggests in an interview with Metropolis magazine:

“Firstly, I am slowly constructing, (…) a physical 3D map of the world, so that I might navigate it freely. This model is not intended as an artwork, but as a tool for me to use, so that when I draw a view from one part of the island, it will be exactly coherent with a view from another part of the island – that is to say, all of the mountains will be in the right place.

“If somebody very clever wanted to, they could infer from all my drawings the rough shape and dimensions of the world without having seen the model. We will go further and build the town and all other permanent features, including the fixed Gods. This internal coherence, both on a physical and logical sense, I feel is essential to the credibility of the project. In terms of detail, I will use the device of describing certain features in fastidious detail, but leaving swathes of the island lightly outlined.”1

The map above shows the archipelago of islands connected by the ‘wetlands’ called the Qoro Qoros. These act like a point of origin for The Island where all of Avery’s taxonomically impossible creatures are born, yet also where all natural and philosophical systems break down. Oddly enough, the explorers and tourists from Triangland travel to The Island by sea, falsely assuming that their worlds are separate.

The imagined separation between Trinagland and The Island serves to symbolize a central exploration in Avery’s project. By opposing these two entities, Avery makes visible the paradoxes inherent in the very structures and philosophies we use to explain our own world: “via the Islanders we come face to face with the absurdity of the world as we know it.”

The Port

The Port of Onomatopoeia is both a point of arrival and departure in the overall geography of The Island. It is where passenger liners and merchant vessels containing The Island’s colonists arrive, and from where hunting expeditions to find the Noumenon depart. Onomatopoeia is the main town, and as such it contains all the main bazaars and tourist attractions such as The Plane of the Gods. Avery’s drawings are full of art historical and cultural references, and if you look carefully you may spot J.D Sallinger, Bill Murray or Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor who met with Marco Polo.

The port is also inspired by historical figures and epochs such as the large ‘Penrose’ building, a tribute to British mathematician and physicist, Roger Penrose. Avery has described the general allure of the town as a mix between Victorian England, the Scottish Highlands and London’s East End. In Onomatopoeia: The Port Avery points out:

“It is true to say of Onomatopoeia that it is a poor place generally. A large part of the population lives in shanty dwellings. But then there are the dapper and idle rich … I see the Island as a one time terra incognita, and Onomatopoeia as an outpost, turned boomtown, turned vulgar theme park, then as a depression hit slum, and so on.”

The English colonial style and early 20th-century aesthetic are constant throughout Avery’s drawings, and he admits that this was a deliberate decision. Avery’s urban scenes are both incredibly detailed and seemingly unfinished at the same time; his ghost-like characters lend a seductive and precarious quality to his drawings.
View an image of  Untitled (View of the Port at Onomatopoeia)


1 Avery, “Onomatopoeia, the Port.” p.160.
2 Tate, “Charles Avery”, 27/03/13,
3 Avery, “Onomatopoeia, the Port.” Epilogue.


A Plot (of sorts)
Charles Avery, Untitled

Charles Avery, Untitled (Self Escaping from Island), 2008, Courtesy the artist.

Avery has written two books to accompany his artworks of The Island, and these writings read very much like a personal memoir. We see The Island through the eyes of Only McFew, whose subjective reflections and stream of consciousness become increasingly incoherent. Both of Avery’s books begin with exactly the same sentences, subtly modified throughout the first pages to create a sense of foreboding and unsettling déjà vu. For example, in Avery’s first book, The Islanders: An Introduction, we learn about the dangerous Henderson’s eggs. The most anyone can eat is three before becoming ruinously addicted, yet in his second book,Onomatopoeia: The Port, we learn that Only McFew has already eaten his second egg; thus, readers understand that Only McFew’s fate is sealed.1 Avery’s narrative is not linear, only revealing its changes and progressions incrementally; by the end of part two, all we know is that Only McFew is lost and alone after his attempt to hunt the Noumenon in order to impress Miss Miss.  Avery is planning a third book, and eventually hopes to create an encyclopaedic book for his entire project, one that, (as you can read in the interview below), will take the form of a “a book which one could enter at any point, and read in any order.”

Only McFew

Only McFew is meant to represent both the author and the viewer, so one might say he serves as a vessel rather than a protagonist with a fixed personality. At first, this subjective ‘self’ arrives on The Island with a colonial mindset, intending to gather items from its flora and fauna and take them back home to his queen in Triangland. Upon arrival, however, he falls in love with an indigenous girl known as ‘Miss Miss’ who shows him The Island’s marvels and wonders.

Towards the end of Avery’s second book, his attitude changes to one of confusion, and he begins to write an inventory in order to keep his mind sharp. Still, he cannot escape feeling “profoundly lost” and begins to refer to himself as “Only McFew,” the name he was mistakenly given upon arrival by Miss Miss. His thoughts slowly become rambling as he wonders “if beyond the shops and bars and lights of Onomatopy, beyond the Plane of the Gods, where the defunct machines and litter are strewn, underneath the mountains and the flowers and the dust and the bones of the hunters, there is an island at all?”

1 “Iconnote: Onomatopoeia: The Port – Charles Avery,” accessed June 3, 2013,

Interview with Charles Avery by MA Curating the Art Museum 2012/13


Charles Avery, Untitled

Charles Avery, Untitled (Self Escaping from Island), 2008, Courtesy the artist.


What is the significance of The Island in your project? Are there utopian/dystopian associations?

The Island was originally meant to represent the world of all ideas, from the idea of theNoumenon to the idea of a teaspoon, a continent that lay across the ocean from Triangland, which represented the corresponding set of real things.

Gradually the purity of the Island has become obscured as I have sought to describe the texture of its landscape, its capital city, its people, and customs. There are naturally Utopian associations, but I have largely avoided portraying any political structure as of yet. There is an area of the town, so far undescribed, which has been allotted to government though I do not know what form that will take and I may well leave it obscure. The Island is simply another place.



People credit you with various literary influences, such as Borges. What differentiates your project from a novel, and what can visual art do that written narrative cannot? What is the relationship between your writing and your art?

The advantage of visual art is that it is presented in space, which gives the opportunity for a non-linear form of narrative. There have been various attempts to do this in literature but it is counter-medium to do so. The format of the gallery exhibition also allows me to incrementally rationalize what is, after all, a work in progress. Every time I have a show I am compelled to organize my thoughts into a coherent whole. Ultimately I would like to gather the content of this project into a great book. I think the idea of the encyclopedia is helpful here (not that I want to create an A-Z of the Island, quite the opposite). I did a talk with the Dutch artist Mark Manders in 2010 at the Hayward Gallery: we had both alighted upon it as a book which one could enter at any point, read in any order, take as much or as little as possible… but whereas I saw its advantage as a book that was never finished, he saw it as always being finished. Now when I talk about the encyclopedia, I describe it as both.

What role do the Sea of Clarity and Eternal Forest play in the overarching narrative of The Islanders?

These two entities play a role in the structure of the space in which the narrative is contained rather than the narrative itself. The Island, the bounds of which are unknown to the north, straddles a globe. It has a great arm that stretches down into the Sea of Clarity and gives rise to an archipelago of innumerable islets that extends into the swirling mists and a great whirlpool that engulfs the south pole. The north is covered by an unnavigable forest. Nobody has even been to either pole and returned, not simply because they are environmentally inhospitable, but also because they are logically inhospitable: the second postulate of the Islanders cosmology is that the everything shrinks towards the poles, therefore the nearer you travel there, the smaller your step, the slower your progress, therefore you will never arrive. It is a model of a universe that is both limited and limitless.


As the viewer, we enter the world you have created through the Hunter’s eyes.  What is the importance of the Hunter as protagonist for your project?

The Hunter is an ultimately subjective character. He simultaneously invents the world as he discovers it. He therefore stands for both the author and the viewer. I wanted him to be androgynous but that was too complicated, so I created an anima of him on the Island, in the form of the female protagonist Miss Miss, with whom he falls in unrequited love. This non-romance threads its way through the whole work, culminating in the Epilogue, whereby our anti-hero has wandered into the indiscriminate wilderness with the hope of catching the Noumenon; an epic gesture that he had hoped would finally turn Miss Miss’s head, but ends in a decaying orbit of indecision and doubt around the Eternal Forest.

How do the urban and natural worlds intersect, overlap and/or contrast within the geography of your island?

The main conurbation is the port city of Onomatopoeia, the gateway to the Island. It is a walled city, and intermittently built into the walls are towers atop which pyres of grass are kept lit almost constantly. It is not clear whether these beacons are intended to cast light onto the murky wilderness, or to deter what lives in that wilderness from coming into town. Perhaps they were meant to guide the hunters home. Suffice it to say, the inhabitants of Onomatopoeia are utterly urbane, and the country is very wild, inhospitable, and minimal – the citizens do not stray far from the city limits. There are those who are compelled to do so, such as the hunters who go in search of the Noumemon, the subsistence fishermen who travel to theQoro-qoros and The Memory of Conchious-Ness in search of eels, and the itinerants who scour the shores for the much prized kelp which is used in many industries, including a mineral which is extracted and added to the grass to cause a vivid blue smoke to be produced when burnt.

How do you characterize the relationship between reality and fiction in The Islanders?

The world is divided into two states: Triangland is the superstate, the Island is its colony. Triangland could be taken to represent reality, and the Island, fiction. Certainly the Trianglanders would take the view that the Island is their dominion, subject to their will and fundamentally inferior, for something real is surely better than its idea. However, a Creole people has emerged on the Island, with its own culture and identity which would strongly refute the primacy of reality. To the Islander, there are indeed two states, yet they are mutually dependent. When the Hunter meets Miss Miss on a remote shore for the first time, having previously believed himself to be the discoverer of the Island and namer of all things on it, he at first tries to discount her as a ghost — not real. She bluntly refutes him by stating, “Everything is real.” Her point is that even if he believes her to be an apparition, she has appeared.

According to the Map, these two states are in fact connected by a body called the Qoro-qoros, an agglomeration of dead organic matter that arranges in a network of spongy mounds, and inverted pools of stagnant warm water. A vast wilderness, quite unnavigable, nevertheless testimony to the fact that these two states are inextricable.

Exhibition Catalogue


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